Can new tests unite state towards higher goals?


The results from Rhode Island’s first year of assessing student achievement through the Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System (RICAS) exam – a test for grades 3-8 based upon the MCAS exam that has been administered in Massachusetts since 1998 – have been tallied and, by this point, you’ve probably seen the results. They are less than stellar. 
On average, students in Rhode Island scored 17 percentage points lower in English Language Arts (ELA) and 20 percent lower in mathematics than those in Massachusetts. Another assessment of the results revealed that, if Rhode Island as a whole were scored as one school district, it would be a district in the bottom 10 percent of Massachusetts. In Warwick, about 27 percent of students graded at or above proficiency in math, while about 37 percent graded at or above proficiency in ELA. A total of 3,975 Warwick students took the tests.
The results provide an objectively dismal outlook on the progress of educational advancement in the state, however Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) commissioner Ken Wagner maintained during an interview on Friday that the test outcomes reveal a simple reality – Rhode Island is starting on a journey that Massachusetts started long ago.
“We are, today, basically identical to where Massachusetts was in their first release in 1998. And I think that’s the explanation,” he said, pointing to the fact that in 1998, only 34 percent of Massachusetts’ fourth graders ranked as proficient in math (27 percent ranked proficient in Rhode Island). “We have to view it as if we put the same structural pieces in place that they’ve put in place and we stick to it year after year, we’ll show the same results.”
Wagner said that, given Massachusetts has stuck with its assessment and educational strategy for over two decades now, this realization should not come as a surprise, but rather serve as a rallying call to all state officials and educational advocates that improvement is necessary – and only collaboration and commitment to an ongoing educational strategy (as measured by the RICAS) will lead there.
“I think we have to find a balance between the urgency of the work and feeling that it’s achievable,” he said. “I don’t think we can come out and depress everybody and think it’s unachievable; that won’t help. But I also don’t think we can take a casual attitude about this. We have to be urgent. Finding that mix between urgency and optimism is how we’re trying to move things forward.”
The plan to better Rhode Island’s academic status is much bigger than a change in testing. It encompasses multiple angles – everything from increasing attention towards early learning, implementing better curriculum, increasing pathways for students to access high-quality education anywhere in the state, increasing professional development opportunities and, perhaps most in line with the RICAS initiative, focusing on increasing educational standards and holding districts accountable to a higher bar of achievement.
“It’s all common sense, but it is a package, and you have to do it all together as a package,” Wagner said, explaining that the RICAS now gives the state a more accurate odometer to measure the distance traveled towards academic progress – one that is almost identical in form to the test taken by the indisputable leaders in American education.
Also grading that progress is the state’s own aspirational goals for 2025, which include long-term visions where 75 percent of third graders are proficient readers; 75 percent of eighth graders are proficient in STEM; 20 percent of students are at the highest levels of proficiencies on the statewide assessment and where 95 percent of students graduate high school within six years.
“This is our test,” Wagner said. “The whole purpose with everybody’s support of adopting this test was to stick to it for the long-term future.”

A ship on course?

For the first time, Wagner said, all parties in the state are on board the same ship and pointing in the same direction towards what they believe is an effective strategy to not only improve test scores, but to actually attain higher educational standards as outlined in the state’s long-term plan.
The choice to switch to the RICAS was unanimously agreed upon between state school officials, legislators, teachers’ unions and school committees. As opposed to the federal PARCC test, which had a high percent of districts opt out of it amidst controversy and concerns, the participation rate with the RICAS exam, Wagner said, is now at 98 percent.
Wagner said that now the test has been decided, real change can occur and be measured properly.
“It was a crisis of leadership, and I believe this is our moment to resolve it,” he said of the waffling history between state assessment exams in recent history. “People need to know that all of our leaders across all levels of our system were all in consensus that this was the way to move forward. And that is the power of this moment, that we’re all looking and pointing in the same direction.”
Still, Wagner also maintains that the true engine of progress remains the same, regardless of which test is used.
“It [the RICAS] helps people understand that the expectations are for real if they’re tied to a test, but a test itself can never improve outcomes. It doesn’t improve instruction,” he said. “The real engine of the work is teachers in classrooms with kids.”
This is where creating an emphasis on professional development opportunities for educators and school administrators becomes increasingly important. Wagner said a critical regulatory piece before the Rhode Island Board of Education for a vote today involves a reintroduction of mandatory ongoing professional development requirements for teachers, including the specification that they take charge of their own professional development opportunities.
Wagner also said it was important for districts to give teachers the freedom to implement curriculum that meet state standards and prepare students for the state assessment.
“I do think we need to unshackle teachers to do what they do best, but I also think we need to provide the resources so they don’t have to wing it,” he said. However, there’s also a fine line between preparing for the state assessment and so-called “teaching to the test.”
“I don’t want anyone to teach to a standardized test,” Wagner said. “I want people to teach to our learning expectations, our learning standards. Because if our curriculum and our instruction and our tests are all aligned to the same standards, then it will all fall into place.”
Warwick Teachers’ Union president Darlene Netcoh also said that she wasn’t putting too much weight into the results of the first year of testing.
“Once the kids get used to what they’re seeing, the skills don’t change – reading, writing, citing text, comprehension, inferencing, these are skills you’ll always have,” she said. “It depends on how the test is constructed to see if the kids have become proficient in those skills.”
Superintendent Philip Thornton, in an op-ed published in this edition, explained two areas in which he felt the state could be emulating Massachusetts even more – graduation requirements and professional development. Thornton pondered why Rhode Island has abandoned a test-based graduation requirement, and why the state is only requiring 15-20 hours of mandatory professional development for educators as opposed to the 30-hour requirement in Massachusetts.
“These test results are a harsh reality check of exactly how poorly our students are performing,” Thornton writes. “On the other hand, the results also give us a new baseline to effectively plan to move forward and raise student achievement in Rhode Island and specifically here in Warwick.”

Equalizing opportunity

The disparity between urban and suburban communities provides another harsh challenge for Rhode Island, as students from school districts in the so-called Urban Core (including cities like Central Falls, Pawtucket, Providence and Woonsocket) scored dismally low in both ELA (17 percent proficient) and in math (14 percent proficient).
Students in districts that fall in between the suburban and urban distinction, known as the Urban Ring (which includes cities like Cranston, Warwick, East Providence and North Providence) fell in the middle – with 32 percent proficient in ELA and 23 percent proficient in math.
Compared to suburban communities – where students scored 49 percent proficient in ELA and 42 percent proficient in math – an economical chasm that dictates the quality of education in the state becomes glaringly apparent.
Wagner said this economic inequality isn’t just a Rhode Island issue, as it remains an issue even for the standard-bearer in the country.
“I don’t want to pretend that Massachusetts nailed everything. They still have large equity gaps, as do we, and we still have to close them, as do they,” he said. “But in terms of a broad rising of educational attainment, I think it’s a pretty straightforward process. Do what they did, and do it year after year after year like they did and, generally, we’ll see the same results.”


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Here is what I know from personal experience. We were taught to pass standardized tests. Often times, we couldn't even get through everything that was on the test by the time the scheduled date came around. I can't do math. Most of my friends can't do basic math. We weren't taught a subject and how to apply it. We were taught how to memorize for a test. I don't think tests should be done away with, just that it go back to what it was originally intended - a way to gauge how well we understand the subject and apply it. Teaching us how to take tests in no way prepared us for adulthood.

Tuesday, December 4

Cat, that is the main problem with standardized testing -- if teachers are simply "teaching to the test," the students have no chance to fully understand the subject.

On an administrative level, if the testing is rolled out in the context of "this is what you will lose if your students don't earn certain scores," as No Child Left Behind was, local administrators do whatever they can to avoid those penalties.

On top of that, Rhode Island lurched from one testing structure to another for decades, while other states like Massachusetts set their own standards and worked toward them.

That also means integrating the school curriculum with the objectives of the test, instead of imposing the test on a curriculum that doesn't include that content at all -- like you suggested, using the tests for their original purpose of checking a student's comprehension.

We're in the early stages of this new system, but I agree with Ken Wagner: Rhode Island needs to stick with one testing method instead of switching every few years.

Tuesday, December 4

This standardized testing craze is an attempt for companies to make yuge profits from schools. The companies produce the tests, the books to prepare the kids for the tests, training for the teachers (paid by the school department) to teach to the test, and on and on. Local control over education has been turned over to the edutainment/industrial complex. We need to break the model and put in a system like the Finns have. Their education system was a huge mess in the late 60's early 70's and they turned it around to be the best in the world.

Plus, if you look at Massachusetts's scores, they are better than RI by far but they are still churning out failing students, just at a lesser rate than here.

This is a plea for Warwick to be a front runner in education reform, from administrators, to teachers, to students, to parents. It can be done if all are willing to do what they are supposed to do.

Tuesday, December 4

I feel 100% better after your comments. I honestly thought I was just stupid because I was a terrible test-taker. It was only once I went to college that I realized I wasn't just plain, old, run-of-the mill dumb! It was a very good experience for me. I hope for the sake of our future that the Warwick hears your pleas and takes note of the suggestion from both Mr. Hartley and Crickee Raven and stick to one test so we can move on to what is really important.

Tuesday, December 4